Wacky characters fall flat on the page
FIRST off, this comic novel is not about the Karen Carpenter. As the first-person narrator immediately points out, her parents made the thoughtless mistake of naming her after a now-dead ’70s singing star.
And that was just the start of our Karen’s troubles.
Trying hard — usually too hard — to be a madcap romp, this second novel from Jonathan Harvey ( All She Wants) is being marketed as British chick lit.
Harvey is not himself a chick, but the Liverpool-bred writer is a frequent scripter for the long-running English soap Coronation Street, which makes him a dab hand at writing cheeky dialogue for strong female characters. Harvey is also an award-winning playwright ( Beautiful Thing, Corrie!, the Pet Shop Boys musical Closer to Heaven).
Unfortunately, his dramatic skills don’t always translate to the novel form. Harvey pulls off lots of funny one-liners in Confusion, but he has a harder time developing sustained comic situations.
The characters, while relentlessly colourful in their broad outlines, remain pretty flat on the page.
Karen is a teacher at an East London comprehensive that’s a bit rough round the edges. When her students are impressed with her, they say things like, “Miss, is you, like, psychic ’n’ shizz?” She is currently trying to recover from the sudden departure of Michael, her boyfriend of 20 years, whose only explanation was a note left on the kettle.
Karen soldiers on with the dubious help of her mother (wacky and self-dramatizing), her lesbian friend Meredith (wacky and Kate Winslet-loving), and her department head, Mungo (wacky and sandalsand-socks-wearing).
She is cheered up considerably when she meets Kevin, a twinkly-eyed Irish dreamboat whose only drawback as a boyfriend is that his wife has just died of cancer that week.
Karen somehow finds herself being all flirty with him when he’s at the supermarket picking out food for the upcoming wake, an occasion that Karen keeps thinking of as a first date. Like several scenes in the book, this one skews more icky than funny.
Meanwhile, the fact that Karen has absolutely no interest in finding out where Michael has gone or why starts to feel less like a plausible emotional reaction and more like a pained plot device brought in to keep everyone running in circles.
And when we come to the Big Plot Twist — and really, this is the kind of what-theheck about-face that can only be rendered with capital letters — Harvey suddenly demands heart-tugging emotion that doesn’t feel earned.
The Confusion of Karen Carpenter is, thankfully, not obsessed with shopping and designer clothing, as its American chick-lit cousins are. Karen is struggling just to pay the mortgage on a little house that’s not even in the good part of East Ham. (“Is there a good part of East Ham?” Karen wonders.)
But Karen falls into cross-cultural chicklit clichés by being chronically hapless and hopeless, whether she’s enduring a Brazilian bikini wax gone grotesquely wrong or talking about the Irish Republican Army as “one of those political thingamajigs.”
Bridget Jones, who’s the English godmother of the dithery female-fiction heroine, managed to make cluelessness comically charming. Karen Carpenter is more often vexing, especially because she tends to go on and on and on about things.